Editor’s Choice October 2015
I had originally planned to write this month’s column on the tour retirement of Glenn Danzig. That changed on Friday morning, when I discovered that ESPN has suspended the publication of Grantland, the network’s maverick sports and pop culture blog headed by author Bill Simmons.
Grantland has been my single favorite website for the last three years, but that’s not why I am writing about it instead of happenings specifically within the metal realm. I’m writing about it because like Grantland, Invisible Oranges (and Brooklyn Vegan) is loosely in the business of pop culture, and whenever one of the highest profile businesses in our field pulls out, it’s worth pausing and surveying the landscape.
The details behind Grantland’s demise are easily available, particularly at Deadspin. That site’s coverage of Grantland is almost as essential as the site itself, which says something. What pop culture website is good (and prolific) enough that you could create a separate site monitoring its demise?
The short version is, Grantland, for a hot minute, employed some of the best writers in the business, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning Critic (Wesley Morris) and set them on assignments that had no direct parallel at other outlets, and it was awesome, but very expensive. The site was a high-caliber alternative to the increasingly SEO-optimized quick-share content culture that is using social media as a primary spreading vector instead of investing in reader loyalty. It stood against the blitz of lowbrow short-copy content that’s come to be called clickbait, and did so before that word was common parlance. After a while, Simmons started a feud with his supervisors, was unceremoniously canned, and Grantland started hemorrhaging writers until ESPN just decided they weren’t very good at pop culture.
Except they were. At times they produced articles that were at once thoughtful and socially minded while still distributing relatively unknown information through carefully sculpted language. Most importantly, though, they were entertaining. Consistently so.
Even the Grantland writers who I don’t hold in particularly high esteem (Simmons among them) produced the kind of work that made me want to be a better writer. They were so good, in fact, that I looked to them for inspiration when I didn’t know what to do here. In some conversations I’ve summed up my editorial direction here as “Grantland… but metal.”
The site wasn’t perfect. In general the pop culture and outsider sports coverage far outstripped the mainstream sports content (which is honestly almost a plus in my book, since I loathe football basketball and baseball). Simmons himself wasn’t the best writer, either, even though he did pen one of the site’s greatest pieces and in the months since his leaving the site’s content took a nosedive.
Metal had its place on Grantland, albeit a very small one, mostly thanks to the site’s prime music critic Steve Hyden, who saw fit to give both Pallbearer and Mastodon the same space he gave to Taylor Swift. He also gave Metallica a prime spot in his Winner’s History of Rock, even if their installment is one of the least-interesting (the Kiss segment, however, is astounding). Hyden possesses the rare constellation of gifts to make him close to the platonic ideal of a pop critic, including extensive knowledge, broad-but-shallow taste and an easy to follow, unpretentious prose style. Even he started to lose focus in recent months, and his pieces on film have become more reliably interesting than his music pieces.
In the end, it’s not surprising that the site was shuttered, with or without Simmons. Mass and farmed content with social media as a prime vector is quickly outstripping websites like Grantland and Invisible Oranges as primary sources for entertainment and information. What stings, as a loyal reader, is that the site crumbled under internal pressure as opposed to external.
The prime critique of Grantland is that it was “for writers not readers.” and there’s some truth in that. If Grantland was a band, every record would have been produced by Colin Marston: complex, dry and demanding some patience. Put another way, a Grantland feature could make a person more than competent enough to discuss a subject over dinner, but wouldn't really compel most people to share the feature on Facebook.
Then again, the change afoot at other publications isn’t all anti-print. Playboy is ditching the naked women, but keeping the articles, so clearly good prose still has value.
The column will be light on the metal this month, mostly because I’ve had the privilege of premiering songs from most of the albums that made me stand up and cheer this month. To make up for it, here’s a ten of my favorite features on Grantland, with links. Thanks to Ian Cory, Joe Yanick and Steve Sutherland for their help with compiling it.
- Sea of Crises
This is what I mean by great outsider sports writing. Brian Phillips starts out covering the modern state of Sumo wrestling and then twists the narrative to include the history of a failed coup in Japan, the labyrinthine architecture of Tokyo and his own existential malaise. Most people would write this story as an egotistical self-portrait spliced with a textbook. Instead it’s poetic. I stopped to catch my breath after reading it the first time.
- Wu-Tang, Atomically
Grantland’s best music coverage tended toward hip-hop, and this is the cream of the crop: a history of the band that includes an interview with all eight surviving members of the original Wu-Tang Clan. That it came out near the 20th anniversary of their debut album, Enter the 36 Chambers, and when the group’s’ future was in serious doubt thanks to internal feuding, makes the whole piece more tense. The best part, though, is an interview with the deceased Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s wife.
- One Hundred Years of Arm Bars
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is the cornerstone of MMA, which is quickly overtaking boxing as the premiere combat sport in the world, or at least the US, and maybe no sport has inspired better writing than boxing. This is the best piece on MMA that I can think of: both a spectacular history of the sport as well as a deep profile into the messed up history of the Gracie family.
- The Eagles’ Greatest Hit
I know I said Bill SImmons was one of the wearer writers at Grantland, but this is the exception to the rule and it’s basically a (very) long review of a two-part music documentary. It’s also hilarious. Simmons here is every bit as lurid, romantic, sly and destructive as The Eagles were when they were the biggest band on the planet.
- Dr. V’s Magical Putter & What Grantland Got Wrong.
The most dramatic period of the site’s history involved a piece that debunked a scientifically superior golf club while also outing the inventor as a transsexual woman who committed suicide before the piece was published. It’s decently written, albeit not amazing, but the mea culpa that followed it is tremendous. It’s not the kind of piece anyone ever wants to write, but if a publication must beg forgiveness, it ought to be done this well.
- A Night With the World’s Most Hated Bands
Bestselling essayist Chuck Klosterman saw Nickelback and Creed on the same night. Simple, morbidly effective. I actually am working on an essay that mirrors this idea right now.
- The Winners History of Rock And Roll
Steve Hyden’s seven-part history of the biggest bands in rock music is ambitious and uneven. As stated earlier, the Metallica installment and the Linkin Park chapters are both pretty dull. The segments on Led Zeppelin, The Black Keys and especially Kiss are required reading.
- Shane Carruth Will Have Another
Shane Carruth is the director of Primer and Upstream Color two micro-budget science fiction films that toe the line between artistic and too smart for their own (or anyone’s) good. He’s also apparently a great guy to tie one on with according to this profile. The whole thing was apparently conducted while four sheets to the wind and somehow is all the better for it.
- Dumber Than Your Average Bear & Crazy, But In A Good Way
It’s difficult to single out one necessary review by Wesley Morris. The man continues to be so routinely excellent at critique of film in particular that this list would be incomplete without him, but to call a single reivew of his the ‘best’ would be a disservice, so here’s two, one negative and one positive, and both spot-on. First, his spirited and vicious takedown on Seth McFarlane (whom Morris seems to share my particular distaste for) and then his glowing endorsement of Wild Tales, an offbeat Argentinian comedy anthology that might be the best movie I’ve seen all year.
- Shady XLII: Eminem in 2014
When it comes to takedowns, though, here’s the cream of the crop: Molly Lambert’s negative think piece on Eminem seems to muster every bit of fury she had in her being. In one sense Eminem’s an easy target for this sort of thing, his career has long lapsed into self-parody, but questioning the mainstream is critical and besides, this kind of violence with gusto has intrinsic value.
While you’re reading those, here’s some metal.
I can tell by the site’s search metrics that you all have been eager to hear about Dim and Slimeridden Kingdoms, the new LP by UK death metal duo Slugdge.
Earlier this month, when hanging out with Rae Amitay from Immortal Bird on the Seattle stop of her tour, she made the offhand remark that I like “dad metal.” While I can’t give a precise definition of what “dad metal” entails, her observation of my taste feels broadly correct. Slugdge are dad metal. I know this because first of all, the band is fond of puns and always has been, and second the project exists mostly as a love letter to early 90’s death metal with a cheap hi-gloss finish--that is to say, metal that my dad might have listened to if he liked metal. Three free albums in and Slugdge is still a studio-only project; they make metal in their man-caves only. That make sense, but the band is also likable to the point of near-desperation for acceptance. These hooks are massive, from the Domination-era Morbid Angel riffs to the Anaal Nathrakh-ish clean choruses. Most tellingly: the goofy concept-album lyrics are delivered largely in tightly metered rhyming couplets, as if ghostwritten for a hypothetical child’s Junior High English class assignment. The giveaway that a parent wrote it, by the way, is the puns. Only dad metal is real.
-Discovered via Facebook
I wasn’t aware that there was both a monosyllabic word and a synonym for sword I had not heard of, until I listened to Bulgaria’s Brond. It’s a fitting monicker, their music is direct and intrusive, at times reminding me of Kruger with less psychedelia, Botch with a more rock and roll sensibility, or maybe just Don Caballero with more vocals and less tapping.
-Discovered via Press release
The last time Underling made an appearance here they were one of many atmospheric black metal bands floating about at that time. Then again, most atmospheric black metal bands don’t share members with technical shredding outfits like Arkaik, or groove-thrash groups like Battlecross--but Underling does. Those sister bands display more clear production and muscular rhythmic patterns than the average black metal group, and those tropes have bled onto the group’s upcoming release, Bloodworship. The atmosphere is still there, but this is more aggressive and grinding than most bands one might have compared Underling to previously. Before this, the members of Underling weren’t standing out from the crowd, either in this project of their others. Now they’re making more noteworthy music.
-Discovered via Email from the band
Earth Prison is comprised of two former members of Lansing Michigan’s Dagon, a progressive-melodic death metal band who made some small waves (pun not intended) with their album Terraphobic. I highly recommend the record still, it’s the album Amon Amarth have failed to write since Twilight of the Thunder God. Dagon were fixtures of Lansing’s Ogrefest scene and shared a member with Satyrasis, so one could say I was primed to give Earth Prison a very open minded listen. The two song the band has produced so far are good, but not quite as memorable as Dagon’s old work, though that may be nostalgia speaking. This newer material is less anthemic and more mid-paced in the vein of The Atlas Moth. “The Corinthian” strikes a good balance between the musicians’ penchants for melody and newfound interest in clobbering.
-Discovered via Facebook
Odetosun were one of the first bands to send me their Bandcamp link when I began editing this site. At that time, their most recent work was 2013’s God’s Forgotten Orbit, so I told them to email me the instant they had something newer. The band stood and delivered for their new record, The Dark Dunes of Titan. It’s the kind of proggy death metal that was more en vogue when their last album was current, but still this is remarkably clear for a home recording and contains several creative passages. The prog bits particularly on the opening track, feel authentic if one’s idea of authenticity is genuinely reminiscent of Pink Floyd or Nektar. Elsewhere, the title track, for example, delves into shredding that reminds me of Mithras.
-Discovered via Email from the band